Since Soapnet’s demise, Beverly Hills 90210 season 1 on Hulu Plus is the only way this writer can reconnect with the West Beverly gang. But does it hold up?
Beverly Hills 90210 season 1, currently streaming on Hulu Plus
Native Minnesotans Jim and Cindy Walsh move with their teenage twins, Brandon and Brenda, to glamorous Beverly Hills, California. The kids attend West Beverly Hills High School, known for its rigorous curriculum and intimidating social standards. Brenda befriends fashionable Kelly Taylor and her also-blonde, also-rich sidekick Donna Martin, while Brandon pals up with spoiled child-of-a-celebrity Steve Sanders, brooding surfer boy Dylan McKay, and studious school newspaper editor Andrea Zuckerman. Nerdy freshmen David Silver and Scott Scanlon observe this popular crew from the sidelines. Image is everything in Beverly Hills, but the Walsh twins soon discover that images often hide dark secrets and messy family drama.
Prolific producer Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, and Dynasty, to name just a few) created this, one of the earliest and most successful teen soaps to date. During its ten season run, BH 90210 made household names of its young stars and spawned a hit spin-off, Melrose Place. Another spin-off, 90210, brought West Beverly Hills High back to prime time in 2008.
Soapnet used to air BH 90210 reruns daily. Since that network’s demise at the end of last year, the show has been sadly missing from cable TV. Only the first season from 1990/91 is available on Hulu Plus.
What’s to Love Now
BH 90210 is mostly dumb, but that dumbness is essential to its charm. I love this show. When I watch, part of me earnestly craves that “What’s gonna happen next?” soapy drama, while another part of me is just laughing at all the ridiculous characters, with their vapid personalities, un-relatable lives and egocentric viewpoints. 1
These deliciously defective personalities are well established in season one. See self-righteous Brandon (Jason Priestley) threaten an exploitative restaurateur with an expose in West Beverly’s newspaper, and school an elderly teacher on the difference between memorizing and thinking. See flighty drama queen Brenda (Shannen Doherty) overcompensate for her poor performance as a diner waitress by working in character as the horned rim bespectacled, hairnet clad “Laverne”; she speaks in a bad Queens accent and entertains customers with her lip-synch performance of “It’s My Party”. See angst ridden Dylan (Luke Perry) break a flower pot after an angry run-in with his father, right before he kisses Brenda for the first time. These people are jerks and their problems have little to do with most viewers’ lives. Yet the show assumes they’re both sympathetic and believable. The old teacher bows to Brandon’s wisdom, the customers love Brenda’s annoying act, and Brenda’s lust for Dylan grows deeper even after that scary display. It’s all so stupid to us, but it makes sense to them. Somehow, this rift between intent and perception makes for a highly entertaining and addictive show. 2
At the same time, BH 90210 deserves credit for its frequent and frank discussions about teen sex. I remember the first season making a big impression on me when I was thirteen years old, especially Brenda and Dylan’s bumpy road to consummation. A virgin overwhelmed by her desires, she worries about his sexual history. He really likes her and struggles to control his urges, but winds up pressuring her to put out. For all their overacting, Doherty and Perry have great chemistry, so it’s a happy moment when they do sleep together. Then it all gets complicated. If you’ve ever been a teenager, you may be surprised by how real that drama feels.
What Makes Us Groan
Again, groaning is a natural part of the BH 90210 viewing experience. Then there’s stuff that makes us groan in a bad way. The first several episodes are sooo slooow. This was before the producers decided to fill all uncomfortable silences with electric guitar riffs and lilting synth melodies; early installments are eerily quiet. At that point in the series, several stories focused on Jim and Cindy’s adjustment to the new zip code – BORING. It makes sense that the kids take their drama too seriously, for they are teenagers, after all. When the show expects us to care about Jim and Cindy’s middle aged, upper middle class problems, that’s too much. But then, most of season one’s plots hit you over the head with the notion that the Walshes’ nuclear family values make them so much better than their wealthier neighbors. But if that were true, why would their children be so horrible?
Once you get through the first several episodes, BH 90210 season one is absolutely binge-worthy. It’s probably the weakest season of the Brenda years, but it’s still better than the six seasons that followed Doherty’s departure. Plus, it’s all we’ve got, so don’t be too choosy, beggars.
The good-badness really starts cooking in episode six “Perfect Mom”, in which Kelly (Jennie Garth) introduces Brenda to her hip, cool, (secretly alcoholic) fashion model mom Jackie (Ann Gillespie). Jackie’s cocaine fueled anti-man tirade at the West Beverly High mother/daughter fashion show 3 ought to be soap opera legend. Episode nine “Isn’t It Romantic?” begins Brenda and Dylan’s torrid courtship. The rest of the season is a buffet of over-the-top, nonsensical drama. Feast away.